Bringing pastoral perspective to immigration debate
By Rick Vacek
GCU News Bureau
You know you have a provocative topic when even the people who organized it admit they had some trepidation about the discussion it might produce.
Unfortunately, that’s the state of the country these days when it comes to immigration, but it doesn’t appear to be the state of Grand Canyon University. The Ministry Forum on Monday, “Welcoming Sojourners and Refugees: A Conversation about Immigration and the Church,” was filled with thought-provoking ideas but no rancor — either spoken or simmering just below the surface.
While there was plenty of passion, compassion won the day. Both the panel and the students in audience appeared to be honestly trying to wrap their arms around the issue rather than shake their fists at it.
“I think that may be a testament to the fact that GCU is in a community of immigrants and that we’re so sensitized to those needs,” said Dr. Jason Hiles, dean of the College of Theology. “It’s almost impossible for us not to think in ways that are very compassionate.”
But even Hiles admitted to wondering “how far this would go.” It seemed appropriate when Dr. Sammy Alfaro, who served as moderator for the four-person panel of COT professors and likewise had some concerns beforehand, tried to head off any hard feelings at the start of the discussion by saying, “The panelists are not trained political activists. We will look at it from a pastoral perspective.”
He was joined by three other pastors — Dr. Valerie De La Torre, Dr. Hector Llanes and Dr. Mike Richardson — who have experience ministering to immigrants. They all shared personal experiences that have given them insight into the depth of the issue, but they came at it from a Christian perspective.
In response to the first discussion question, “What advice would you give a young pastor or ministry leader who desires to serve a multicultural community?”, De La Torre said, “You must remember that your first job is to bring people to Christ.”
Llanes: “You must be willing to learn new cultures so you know how to help them.”
Richardson, a former minister in Argentina: “In that role of pastor, you are partnering with God, and in some ways you’re representing God. You need to enter into their story but through God’s story.”
Alfaro said he has found that his role has become multifaceted: “Sometimes you’re a counselor, sometimes you’re a translator. I often would write letters on their behalf.”
The second discussion question got into the meat of what fueled many political debates during the election season: obeying the law vs. the Biblical and theological principles of reaching out to those in need.
Richardson had an important perspective on this one, too, for a simple reason — he’s also a former police officer.
He told the story of a family of illegal immigrants who had been in an auto accident that injured their baby. They were afraid to report it because they thought they might be deported.
“It’s just a really different context in which to live,” Richardson said while questioning whether the average American can begin to grasp what it’s like to have all that on your mind as you try to protect your family.
Speaking of protection, that’s exactly the reason why Llanes said he once took in an immigrant family — it was for their own safety.
Alfaro pointed to all the stories in the Bible about helping refugees, and De La Torre added, “We have to think like Christians first, not Americans first, I believe.”
The question-and-answer session was equally intriguing, especially when a student of both Hispanic and Caucasian heritage shared how confusing it can be when two sides of the family have such different opinions. It was an appropriate capper to why the topic can be so polarizing.
The goal of the Ministry Forum this academic year is to tackle tough topics, and Hiles said that this one was “right up near the top. This is one of those where people are going to be passionate because of what’s at stake. You’re talking about human beings and how you treat them.”
Two more Ministry Forum events remain during this academic year, on Feb. 13 and March 13 in the Colangelo College of Business lecture hall. Both will start at 5 p.m.
Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or [email protected].